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Wednesday 2 February 2011

Grounds for argument #1 - "Art is best experienced viewed timelessly"

[This piece and its reply are steps along the way to building a larger conception]

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (above) is a painting that can be taken as being in response to a particular event; the Nazi bombing of said town during the Spanish civil war, and indeed in a solely historically defined, or timely fashion, this can be said to be completely correct, but in ‘reducing’ the painting to only having this sort of historical attachment removes what is its deeper more expansive force. In a sense, I want to say and this is my addition, that a true work of art and therefore a fuller aesthetic experience is one that is timeless (to use a Wittgensteinian phrase[1]). That is, that we can appreciate Guernica not because we can relate in some way its historical value but that it speaks to us (that is, it shows us) about things that are of primordial importance to the experience of human existence. The images of horror, pain and suffering without a direct cause show us something of the conflict we all face; against faceless power, against convention, and against our own historicality, that we cannot escape: The war of existence. Thus, we have here a distinction between art (timeless) and propaganda (only timely). The key point here is that propaganda is only timely, that it communicates nothing but present circumstances in an attempt to influence public opinion. Therefore, the more an artwork has of the element of timelessness the closer it is to being true art. However, I do not believe that such a work would ever be completely possible as we are always already within our own historicity. That is, there is always something attaching us to our present circumstances and that this ‘expression’ of the timeless cannot be a true expression in any categorical sense, but that it is attempting to show us something beyond.

This brings forth another point, a distinctly Wittgensteinian one, that of saying and showing (this is how Richard Shusterman in his Pragmatist Aesthetics describes it – in so many words – without referencing the obvious influence). As Shusterman says quoting Dewey, “the particular quality which unifies and thus constitutes aesthetic experience, can only be felt… and cannot be described nor even specifically pointed at.”[2] Any attempt to describe or define the aesthetic experience in words, which goes beyond just a pointing out, is an impossible task. As the aesthetic experience is an ‘immediate experience’ then this is inadequate as grounds for a justificational standard for critical judgement. That is, defining art as aesthetic experience, is defining something comparatively clear (art) by something obscure and indefinable. Thus, there is no measurement here, but if it cannot be properly described how can we define art in this manner? Shusterman answers, “a good definition of art should direct us toward more and better aesthetic experience” and “redefining art as experience liberates it from the narrowing stranglehold of the institutionally cloistered practice of fine art.”[3]

However, what of a foreign visitor viewing Picasso’s Guernica who does not have any of the Western cultural conventions of art that we all do, and for that matter what of our viewing of an ancient art from a ‘lost’ civilisation how can either make any sense without an understanding of the history? Well, this may be true and I would agree with this but then to make this all that the artwork is[4] seems to miss the point of the artwork. We do not need to know the artist’s intent (indeed, there is a strong case that we cannot ever know the artists intent) to interpret an artwork, but to ‘correctly’ interpret it? That is another matter[5].

The question should still remain, how exactly am I using timelessly as a concept? For it seems to suggest some sort of transcendent experience, that is to say, one outside of human agency. However what I am suggesting is nothing like this, perhaps it would be best to say that I am using this notion of timelessness more in a poetically metaphorical manner than philosophically conceptual, I am not suggesting something transcend of human experience. Rather, something that is timeless as ‘we’ are timeless, that is we as Humanity. Thus, the primordial experience shared by all, the experience of experience, but I do not mean this in such a vague and nebulous fashion. At least not in the context of defining art, although to call this notion a concept would be suggest that I have (like many have mistakenly done before) taken an abstract and made it a ‘thing’. Of course, I have no such intention, but I have something like this in mind, “one who lives not in time but in the present is happy” and “in order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world. And that is what ‘being happy’ means.[6] Therefore, art when viewed timelessly (rather when it exhibits this timelessness and is thus capable of being viewed timelessly) is showing us our fundamental experiential natures that is our constant running up against the ‘limits of the world.’ This could be expressed thusly, “feeling the world as a limited whole – it is this that is mystical.”[7] Moreover, we might substitute mystical for an aesthetic experience quite successfully here.

[1] Perhaps a moment to explain this mention of Wittgenstein here, in using ‘timeless’ I am referring to section 6.4311 namely, “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.”
[2] Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics, p. 57
[3] Ibid.
[4] The shadowy figure I refer to here is Hegel, but this may be an unfair characterisation.
[5] That is, what is a correct interpretation?
[6] Wittgenstein, Notebooks, pp. 74, 78.
[7] Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.45. [my emphasis]